Sexualisation of the female body is not a new concept. The recent allegations of abuse against Harvey Weinstein and the late Fox C.E.O Roger Ailes has sparked a fire, bringing the prevalence of sexual harassment to the forefront of current media.
But why are women targeted when it comes to sexual harassment? The answer is systemic and derives from the sexualisation of the female body. When it comes to depictions and preconceived notions of the human body, there’s no equality between genders; the female form is exclusively sexualized. Historic perceptions, too, were centered around the idea of connection between sex and the body, but this is deeply flawed.
Female breasts are not a sexual organ. In cultures around the world, women are able to be topless simply because of the lack of a societal implication of sexuality. Today, you can sunbathe topless on beaches in Egypt and Tunisia. Indonesian women didn’t cover their breasts until Islam began to emerge there in the late 1200s. Before Muslims entered north India in the 12th-16th centuries, only upper-class women covered their breasts; in the southwest region of Kerala, the majority ethnic group (Malayali) only allowed women of the Brahmin (priests and teachers) and Kshatriya (ruling/military elite) to wear tops until 1858 (Broadly).
This impact of religion is worth exploring. The sexualisation of the female body doesn’t derive from a natural perspective on what is acceptable; it originated over time, as more and more individuals, societies, and religious figures decided there was a sexual connotation.
A 1994 study in the Journal of Sex Research titled “Psychosocial aspects of female topless behavior on Australian beaches” tried to uncover why some women are so willing to go topless in such a misogynistic culture. The results were summarized by the following statement:
Those who had ever gone topless were less likely to believe that going topless was sexual, had more permissive sexual attitudes, attended church less often, had a more favourable attitude to going topless, believed that the community approved of topless behaviour, believed that significant others were approving of topless behavior, and had higher self‐esteem and higher body image. In two stepwise regression models, the sexual attitudes of the women were the best predictor of topless behavior. (Broadly)
These results illustrate the implications of how topless-ness is viewed in our society. Breasts, (only one aspect of the female form), are not inherently sexual. Women (and girls) have to be taught to be reserved about exposing their bodies, in order to develop self-conciousness. Opinions on the female body aren’t wired in your head as “right or wrong”. These perspectives are adapted, learned, retained, and developed, usually as a result of exposure to media outlets where women are overtly sexualized.
In a study conducted in 2008, researchers at Wesleyan University found that on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8% of advertisements featuring women portrayed them as sex objects. In solely men’s magazines, women were objectified 76% of the time.
So, where do we come in? What does the sexualisation of the female body mean for the women’s rights movement?
Visual art is one way previously-underground female voices are heard in the feminist movement. Artistic, intentional depictions of the female form work to desexualise the human body and illustrate its complexity. The first thing they teach you in art school is how to sketch the naked form, and that it’s a beautiful and respected thing to depict. Why is that lesson not translated into everyday life?
The following painting is from the Brazil exhibit PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE, currently on display at the Phoenix Art Museum.
The first time I saw this work, I was stunned by the beauty of the piece as a form of artistic expression. Depictions of the female body can be extremely powerful, but the separation between the body and its sexualisation is crucial before society can begin to comprehend its power. The art piece below is an example of a photograph being taken of a female body and transformed into something more complex. The body is used as a vessel for expression, creativity and perspective.
I admired these pieces in conjunction with an artistic assignment, and looking at them more deeply, I came to realise what they meant to me. The future was female. Viewing the female body in this form – art – I was able to realise the inherent power of the female body, once separate from its sexualization.